Opinion

Kiwis need access to modern medicines. Period. And we must find a way.

This week I got in touch with the Australian government. In particular, I wanted to speak with the Australian minister of health, Greg Hunt.

 I had some questions around why he funded trikafta; this breakthrough drug that treats cystic fibrosis. The Aussies have funded it, and another four drugs before it. 

In this country, we give people saline solution in a nebuliser - salt water basically - and tell them to cough the gunk up off their lungs. And they do that four or five times a day. And they're on antibiotics, intravenously 24/7 to stop the lung infections. And the hospital treatments are frequent, and most will die before they're 40. It's a horrible disease.  

I had a number of questions for the Australian minister, and wouldn’t you know it, the minister’s office responded. 

In the first instance, I wanted to know -- high level -- why they funded this drug.

And their answer? I love this because it’s just so Australian and it’s not written in political speak. This is a direct quote from the health minister’s office.

“The Australian government’s commitment to ensuring Australians can access affordable medicines - when they need them - remains rocks solid.”

I said that trikafta is an expensive drug and I asked if they compared the cost of funding the drug, with the cost of not funding it -- in other words, the cost of keeping people sick, or in hospital, performing lung transplants, keeping parents out of the work force because they're caring for sick children?

Their response? They said as part of their consideration, they “must consider the cost-effectiveness of a medicine”. And they go on to say our funding decisions "are informed by an economic evaluation which considers a range of factors…” including costs and savings that are made by the health sector when you fund a modern medicine.

So they don't just consider the upfront cost of a medicine, they look at the cost of 'not' funding. 

The Australians take a whole of life view and understand how everyone wins when you treat illness. You don't leave people to suffer. 

Now, I didn’t ask for this information but the minister’s office told me they are introducing an $82 million dollar scheme which will do what’s called, ‘carrier testing’.  

So if you’re planning a pregnancy or you’re in the early stages of it, they can test you for the three most common inheritable genetic disorders; they are – cystic fibrosis, spinal muscular atrophy (or sma) which is another brutal disease, and also fragile x syndrome or (fxs). And that allows you, a parent, to be informed if you carry a gene. But most of all, it just shows the Australians make use of modern medicine technology.

I also asked the minister’s office how they were preparing for the most cutting edge, life-enabling modern medicines which are coming down the line. These are gene therapies which are incredible. If you’re born with a genetic condition, gene therapies can turn off the disease or prevent it from ever developing.

How did they respond? They told me Australia has already approved gene therapy and they’re using it to treat a genetic condition which makes people go blind, and they’re also treating babies with spinal muscular atrophy with a gene therapy too. They're on to it. 

And finally, they said this.

“The Australian government appreciates that health technology is progressing rapidly and that Australia's health system will need to continue to evolve to remain world-class.”

And that attitude, and that desire to find a way, to develop and grow our access to all these modern medicines that will help and support all of us…..that is what we need in New Zealand. Courage. Leadership. And a desire to find a solution.

Kiwis need access to modern medicines. Period. And we must find a way.